Area grocery stores adapting to COVID-19 challenges

A shopper stands before a depleted bread shelf at the Shoreline Costco recently. (Photo by Bob Throndsen)

Welcome to grocery store shopping in the age of COVID-19.

What used to be a simple trip to the store is now preceded by a list of worries including whether the items on your list will still be on the shelves, and if you’ll be limited in how much you can purchase.

Once you get there, your fellow shoppers have changed.  Many don’t seem like the same folks your shared the aisles with as recently as last week, and shopping has become increasingly competitive, with rampant hoarding occasionally leading to angry words or even fights.

And it’s not just the customers, whose experience typically passes when they walk out of the store.

It’s a different world for store employees, who are being hit particularly hard keeping shelves stocked and meeting the challenge dealing with increasingly rude, stressed and angry customers.

The added stress for store employees of assisting customers who are often on a short fuse is exacerbated by feelings of being trapped, enclosed and exposed. Grocery stores have become one of the last places in Washington state where large groups can gather in close proximity, and where the social distancing urged by medical experts is frequently trumped by the rush to grab that last roll of toilet paper, package of pasta, or dozen eggs.

New standards are in place for self-service food stations in grocery stores. (Photo by Janice Carr)

The Washington State Department of Health issued a set of guidelines last week basically calling for increased sanitation efforts, such as wiping down public surfaces and self-service stations more often and ensuring employees don’t touch food as they are preparing and serving it. The guidelines also say employers should consider retraining workers in sanitary practices and expanding options for paid time off for employees.

Many store chains are joining hands with their workers to come up with ways to help.

Last weekend Safeway, one of the country’s biggest grocery chains, and the union representing many of their workers (United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, UFCW) reached an agreement to provide up to two weeks’ pay for workers who are required to self-quarantine.

In an effort to help their most vulnerable customers, Kroger (Fred Meyer and QFC), Safeway, PCC, Target, Whole Foods and Walmart have joined other grocery chains nationwide and launched “senior hours,” setting aside dedicated shopping hours for those 60 years and over. Typically scheduled in the morning, these give seniors an early crack at freshly stocked shelves, allowing them to take extra time to fill their carts and avoid the often-competitive atmosphere during regular hours.

According to PCC, the food cooperative is doing this to ensure that they “remain available to the most vulnerable members of our community by reserving the first hour [7 to 8 a.m.] of business at each PCC store for those who are age 60 or older, pregnant or otherwise at high risk for infection.”  PCC further states that “If you do not fall into any of these categories, we invite you to shop with us between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.”

More empty shelves during a shopping trip to the Edmonds PCC earlier this week. (Photo by Janice Carr)

Our online news partner The Seattle Times assembled the following partial list of special shopping hours for elderly or at-risk shoppers:

  • Safeway/Albertsons: At-risk shoppers (seniors, pregnant women, people who have compromised immune systems). Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-9 a.m.
  • Target: Senior shoppers and those with compromised immune systems. The first hour of each day. Check Target’s website for specific opening hours at locations throughout the Greater Seattle area.
  • Town & Country Markets: Senior shopper hours, Monday and Wednesday, 7-9 a.m., starting March 23.
  • Uwajimaya: Senior Shopper hours daily, 8-9 a.m.
  • Whole Foods: Senior Shopper hours. One hour before the store opens to the public. Check Whole Foods’ website for specific opening hours at locations throughout the Greater Seattle area.
  • Here’s a partial list of stores that have reduced hours:
  • Fred Meyer: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. starting Thursday, March 19
  • Metropolitan Markets: 8 a.m.-8p.m.
  • PCC Markets: All stores now close at 10 p.m.
  • QFC: 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
  • Town & Country Markets: Central Markets – Mill Creek, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and Shoreline: 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
  • Trader Joe’s: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Other stores are looking at ways to curb the number of shoppers in stores at any one time.

Costco, for example, is limiting the number of shoppers in their stores in the interest of social distancing.  Costco shoppers are now finding themselves waiting in a queue outside the stores as doorkeepers and security guards count customers leaving before letting in an equal number of new shoppers, and offer to wipe cart handles with disinfectant as customers enter. Inside the store crowds are light, and staff ensure that customers in checkout lines maintain safe interpersonal distance.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things, one constant is that people need to eat and shop for groceries.  As the situation evolves, expect stores to continue coming up with new strategies to serve the public during this unprecedented health crisis.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. The hours listed above for QFC are their regular hours. In a call placed yesterday (Thursday, 3/19); they are “discussing” senior hours. I just checked their website and do not see a call out for senior hours.

  2. I have worked for Albertsons for 45 years and I have NEVER seen anything like this before. Our business is through the roof just like every other grocery store. Last week we did more business that we did on either Thanksgiving week or Christmas week. At store level we are frustrated at the few who choose to sneeze or cough while in the store or in the checkout line. We are being asked to perform like we have never been asked to before to keep the store clean and full of product. Next time you go into a grocery store maybe thank the person helping you for being there and doing their job. We are all in this together and being one of the last places where people can be in large numbers please keep that in mind.

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